Into the Woods
On the shores of Somes Sound, a young family builds a four-season retreat amid the evergreens
Long before a house ever stood here, this land felt like home. For years, the undeveloped three-acre parcel on Mount Desert Island served a young couple and their two elementary-school-age sons as a summer campsite. Nestled between the shores of Somes Sound to the west and the mountains of Acadia National Park to the east, the serene and secluded spot allowed the family to escape the noise and distractions of urban life and wander among the peninsula’s lanky spruces and pines, hunt for rocks along the shoreline, and kick back in the company of nature for a few treasured days each summer. At the end of every visit, the family would pack up what they had packed in and head back to their New York City apartment, quietly wishing they could stay just a little while longer.
Three years ago, the owners commissioned Matthew Baird Architects, a collaborative Manhattan-based design firm known for its respect for both the natural environment and homeowners’ budgets, to envision a new kind of retreat that would allow them to extend their visits past Thanksgiving and maybe spend days and nights on Somes Sound during all four seasons. Eventually, decades from now, the couple imagined, they might retire here.
“The land had been in the family for generations,” explains architect Florence Schmitt-Thai of Matthew Baird Architects. “When the couple decided to build a house here, they made it clear that the site was meaningful to them and this was to be a very minimal intervention: ‘Let’s not cut too many trees.’ ‘Let’s preserve what’s special about this place.’ ‘Let’s keep it simple.’ ‘Let’s take our time and do it right, over time.’”
Working closely with their clients and local builder Chris Parsons, the architectural team developed a plan to create a light-filled iteration of Maine’s classic cedar-shingled summer cottages. “Our clients wanted to use local materials in a contemporary expression,” says Schmitt- Thai. Their goal was to create a house so well suited to the site that it would blend seamlessly into the scenery.
Of course, designs that look simple seldom spring from thin air: to succeed architecturally and aesthetically, this project required smart engineering, meticulous execution, and clear communication. The clean-lined structures that resulted are anchored to rock ledge 75 feet from the water’s edge, a distance calculated to factor in high tides and the rising sea levels predicted in the decades ahead.
With a total of 2,060 square feet of living space, the house is divided into two distinct wings, separated by an open breezeway that serves as the home’s main point of arrival from the unpaved drive that leads into this spot in the woods from the main road. Only the main structure is winterized. True to its summer camp inspiration, the second structure—composed of two bedrooms with a shared bath and a south- west-facing study/studio space—remains un- heated, at least for now.
From the perspective of the shoreline, the house presents the low-to-the-ground profile of a rustic cabin. “But I don’t think this is the kind of cabin you could ever get cabin fever in,” says Schmitt-Thai. “The way sunlight and views enter the rooms, you almost feel that you’re a part of nature. And when you are outdoors, the architecture becomes a part of the scenery.” In fact, that was precisely the plan.
Situated to make the most of all available sunlight, cross-ventilation, and views, the home’s two wings are joined in the shape of an L. The main structure—containing living room, dining room, kitchen, mudroom, a bedroom, and two baths—stands two full stories on its eastern exposure, which faces the mountains.
The main structure’s roofline angles steeply downward toward its western, water-facing elevation. In the center of the roof’s downward slope, a 161⁄2-foot-wide dormer pops up—a picture-windowed hybrid of a modern high-rise penthouse and a rustic tree house.
The interior’s open framing recalls the humble vacation cottages and hunting cabins built on Mount Desert Island throughout the twentieth century. But, instead of the typical cramped dark rooms, the owners opted for an open floor plan and well-proportioned windows that drink in all the light, sights, sounds, and scents that this forested former quarry site has to offer.
“The big thing with the owners was to keep the site as close to original as possible,” says Parsons. “They wanted to keep the feeling of a campsite, and they didn’t want any trees to be wasted.” The trees that were taken down to make room for the house were milled into boards by a local millwork shop. Savage Forest Enterprise transformed some of the spruce planks into the custom farmhouse-style table that now furnishes the dining area and is destined to become a family heirloom. The remaining planks were used to clad walls and ceilings. Inside and out, building materials blend the practical and the poetic, reflecting the owners’ commitment to creating a space that is easy to live in, easy to maintain, and easy on the environment.
Essential to the project’s success are the custom windows used throughout, fabricated by Caoba Doors from sustainably harvested mahogany, a material known for its resiliency in harsh weather. Installing these hardwood beauties, however, was heavy lifting—literally. First, Parsons and his three-person crew met the delivery truck driver at the nearest main road and transferred the windows from the semitrailer they had been shipped in to vehicles small enough to navigate the dirt drive that led to the construction site. The team hoisted the weighty windows up to the second story with a boom crane.
With an eye toward long-term livability, the couple invested in thoughtful design and high-quality building materials. After the sun goes down, a floor-to-ceiling fireplace built of rough-cut granite serves as a focal point in the main living space. The raised hearthstone doubles as extra seating. Stainless-steel kitchen appliances—a Wolf gas range, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, and a Bosch dish-washer—promise to maintain their good looks and high functionality for years to come. Over time, the exterior’s cedar-shake cladding will weather to silvery gray (no painting required), and the copper flashing will develop a warm patina.
Not every clever design idea in the house was a splurge. Matthew Baird’s team was able to stretch their clients’ budget by using unpretentious materials in elegant ways. In lieu of custom kitchen cabinetry, for example, they specified stock cabinetry from IKEA’s Ringhult line. The kitchen ceiling is illuminated with utilitarian white-porcelain sockets fitted with relatively in-expensive matte-white-dipped bulbs. “It’s a look that works well in settings where you want to keep things simple and fresh,” Schmitt-Thai says. “They almost disappear against the whitewashed spruce boards here.”
The owners believe that the best houses take shape over time, and it pays to be patient. “These clients know how they want to live and how they want their home to evolve. They are fine with empty walls and not in a rush to saturate the space with stuff brought in all at once just to fill it up,” says Schmitt-Thai. “For them, the process is part of the fun.”
They are willing to wait until they find the right thing, the way they collect rocks along the water’s edge. In the end, every element of the house will tell a story. And it will start something like this: “We went into the woods and made a home there.”